Colonization of Knowledge

Caste System. A morally abhorrent construct of the past, the endurance of which defies comprehension. It has persisted through numerous social and religious reform movements for almost 2500 years. Buddhism was perhaps the first big reform movement when it broke free from Hinduism as a direct consequence of rigidity in caste hierarchies. This fight continues to this day with followers of Ambedkar acting as the new reformers. Fortunately, they are in a stronger position now more than ever, with higher literacy levels and urbanization breaking the old, yet strong, structures of caste. Then there is also the Constitution of India (created, not coincidentally, by Ambedkar) – one of the most systematic and sharpest attacks ever on the caste system.

However, eliminating the notion of caste from the Indian psyche has proved to be quite difficult, even more so with Indian politicians using caste as a tool for their, often divisive and anti-reform, identity politics. Sadly, and I say this with both anguish and perplexity, even the educated lot in big Indian cities is not willing to let go of this irrational and obnoxious part of their identity. Perhaps, irrational beliefs don’t need rational reasons for their existence. The persistence of caste system reminds me of a poignant scene from the movie Swades. In an argument over caste divisions in the village, one of the village chiefs, while responding to SRK’s appeal to disregard castes, replies bluntly – “जाति उसी को कहते हैं जो कभी नहीं जाती”. A line that perfectly captures the irrationality and tenacity of caste system.

Whatever be the reasons of its origin, some say it began as a system of labor division and skill specialization, its present form boils down to just one word – Discrimination. Discrimination in opportunity, wealth, land ownership, knowledge, and even basic human rights. The history of caste system is the history of violence based on discrimination. Scores of scholars have documented the way this discrimination has caused great misery and despair. Indian literature, with authors like Mulk Raj Anand and Premchand, is full of hard-hitting stories that instill feelings of anger (against the so-called ‘elites’) and sympathy (for the ones denied their rights). However, In addition to the much severe and blatant social effects, there is also a less talked about – call it, latent – effect of the caste system. One, where it significantly hampered the process of knowledge creation in India.

Discrimination based on access to knowledge was one of the basic tenets of caste system. At the top of caste hierarchy (varnas) were Brahmins, tasked with providing intellectual sustenance to the society. The unfortunate consequence of this order was the denial of education to other groups, particularly Vaishyas and Shudras. Simply put, it was the colonization of knowledge by Brahmins, not unlike the British colonization of India’s resources, with complete control over the exchange of ideas. I make this analogy with British rule on purpose. Almost 200 years of British control on Indian trade was a big setback to the Indian economy, not to forget the damage done to the Indian society. In a similar fashion, the much more prolonged control of Brahmins over knowledge was a big setback to the knowledge economy of India.

The first reason behind this argument is actually quite straightforward. It’s just numbers and probability – more educated people mean more ideas. If a system involves 3 out of 4 groups in the society to be excluded from education, then the system is pretty much devoid of ideas. Ideas mutate and evolve, very similar to biological evolutionary process of genes (refer: meme). More ideas in the idea-pool lead to more mutation and development of new ideas. So, in a way, caste system ensured that the rate of generation of new ideas remained low in Indian society. Furthermore, the survival rate of ideas over time depends on the number of people carrying a copy of it. I suspect that a lot many ideas were lost (or never developed and improved) just because not enough people understood the idea for it to be passed through generations.

There is more to this beyond numbers. The Brahminical dominance over knowledge was like the ancient intellectual property (IP) rights, except that it wasn’t based on merit. The IP rights protect the ideas against theft, so as to ensure payback to individuals (and corporations) for their time and money invested in developing the idea. However, the Brahmin IP was totally based on an unfounded social order. The people who lived off alms and didn’t do anything else to support their survival, had only one way to ensure their dominance – copyright the knowledge. They had a direct economic interest in not letting other people get educated. The less literate the others were, the more valuable the intellectual property became.

The welfare of society as a whole (by getting more educated) and the welfare of Brahmins were in outright conflict. And they chose their community over society. In order to protect this IP, they developed systems within the community. For instance, consider the tradition of transferring ideas by oral communication instead of proper documentation. For centuries, fathers taught their sons orally, and built an exclusive system of education. Documentation of ideas increases their accessibility and reach. Writing is, after all, the best way to share ideas – its impact, connect and permanence unmatched by any other form. And so, following the oral tradition in Brahmin schools – which, to make things worse, is also the more error prone way of transfer – might have done great disservice to generations that followed.

Another casualty of these Brahminical traditions was one of the world’s oldest language – Sanskrit. In their attempt to retain knowledge within the community, Brahmins made sure that Sanskrit remained the language of the elites. A language survives and evolves only if the masses embrace it. An ‘elitist’ tag for Sanskrit ensured its demise as it got restricted to ancient religious texts. It also made the old scientific, and philosophical, archives of ancient India unintelligible to the general public.

Even if you discount the traditions and intent, there is still an even more critical loss to the Indian society that can be attributed to this ridiculous social construct – that of loss to the development of scientific worldview in India. I will not be exaggerating in including caste system as one of the reasons that India couldn’t keep pace with Industrial revolution in Europe. Of course, the Industrial revolution in Britain was at the cost of de-industrialization of India. British exploitation of Indian resources – exporting raw materials from India and using India as a market for their Industrially produced finished product – was indeed the reason behind the downfall of Indian economy. But, I often wonder on why the seeds of Industrial revolution were sown in Europe, instead of say a much older civilization like India ? Don’t get me wrong, there are no unfounded feelings of patriotism or nationalism behind this argument. I just find it very peculiar that a 5000 year civilization (Indus Valley) fell so behind in the development of science and technology.

As I see it, the growth in science and technology is largely a utilitarian process (I don’t say this in a negative sense and yes, there is a curiosity driven scientific approach as well). The saying – Necessity is the mother of invention – indeed has some logic to it. Being a utilitarian process, it might be appropriate to conclude that people involved in administration, production and trade of utilities will act as drivers for scientific progress. The producers and traders are best suited to identify limitations in the processes. Once a limitation is identified, the educated minds then devise a scientific way to get rid of it. Usually, this leads to technological progress and benefits to the society in general. But what if the administrators, producers and traders are condemned to a life with no education ? Surely, it would at least decrease the rate of scientific growth. The problem is further amplified if the educated lot in the population is indifferent to the needs of producers, traders and workers. Even more so, if the people with access to education purposefully want to destroy the scientific way of thinking.

Brahmins had a very strong economic interest in peddling the myths of supernatural which are contrary to any scientific worldview. This helped them maintain their dominance and superiority among the illiterate masses. Science, being the best way to counter any irrational belief system, was a direct threat to the illogical caste hierarchies. And so, the whole Brahmin community had a very strong reason to sabotage anything that might have led to growth of scientific ideas in society. They adopted a special role in the society as the messengers of gods – being the only ones capable of understanding scriptures. This role guaranteed them a position of dominance and privilege.

It also made their ideas and knowledge predominantly anti-scientific. Their only motivation was to protect the ancient knowledge almost exclusively within the community, even if the knowledge was obsolete and wrong. Over time, the community lost the scientific curiosity and the drive to look for new ideas. For centuries, learning old Sanskrit scriptures and shlokas (verses) became the standard of knowledge in the Brahmin community. Vedas and Upanishads, outdated ancient Hindu texts, became the reference for all scientific, economic, administrative and philosophical questions. Even today, this holds true for the orthodox Brahmin schools. Fortunately, winds of change are blowing hard and chipping away at the edifice of this obnoxious monopoly of Brahmins over knowledge.   

It is heartening that the combined forces of education, urbanization and capitalism are weakening the foundations of caste system today. Globalization has caused an explosion in the exchange of ideas. After losing the race for Industrialization in 19th century, India has finally realized the benefits of technological growth and embraced science. Capitalism has further accentuated the utilitarian nature of scientific progress. With their survival at stake, even the ‘elites’ have come down from their throne . People forget their castes in their quest to earn money and survive. As the writer and thinker, Chandra Bhan Prasad, puts it perfectly – Pizza delivery has no caste. IronicallyMoney has become the great equalizer as far as castes are concerned. It is true, as Prasad says, that only in capitalism can a Dalit buy a Mercedes and hire a Brahmin as a driver. Well, Amen to that.